If you live in Southwest Ohio, you’ve probably met honeysuckle. Even if you didn’t know it, you could likely go out your door right now and see it, it’s that ubiquitous.
Honeysuckles are a group of plants that mostly come from Europe and Asia (though there are some native North American species). The ones that are common around Imago are the bush honeysuckle (Lonicera mackii). They are very common – so common that they are actually a nuisance. They grow so thickly that they don’t allow other trees to sprout. In fact, they actually release toxins in the soil that inhibit the germination of other plants.
Bush honeysuckle is so common because the natural predators that keep honeysuckle growth in check did not travel to North America with the plants. In addition, they can germinate easily, produce copious fruits that are dispersed by birds, and have an extra long growing season with leaves that come out in the very early spring and last till the far reaches of fall. All of these factors create the perfect conditions for rampant growth that keeps native trees from growing in the forest.
You might be asking, “What’s the big deal, so what if there are more honeysuckle than other plants?” Unfortunately, it is a big deal. Plants are the bottom of a food chain upon which all other things above depend. Too much honeysuckle means too few native trees and bushes and that means that there is not the right food for certain insects, which means not the right insects for native songbirds and thus not the right food for native predators (like foxes). And that’s just one food chain – the loss of native trees due to honeysuckle affects the entire forest.
At Imago, we are constantly doing our best to keep honeysuckle in check. In fact, we held our very first Honeysuckle Hunt in November of last year (look for the event this upcoming November) and our volunteers are out regularly cutting honeysuckle down and replacing them with native trees and shrubs.
That said, honeysuckle aren’t without merit. They have pretty red berries and a beautiful white or yellow flower, and you can eat them.
Really what you are eating is the nectar. It’s a great time to practice your basic botany. What you are trying to get is the pistil which is at the center of the flower surrounded by those long thin stalks with yellow heads. That yellow is pollen and the stalks are stamen. The pistil is at the center of those stamens and it has a bit of nectar hidden deep inside the flower.
- Go out and find a honeysuckle bush (shouldn’t be hard)
- Pick one of the white flowers (the yellow ones have been pollinated and don’t have as much nectar)
- Now the hard part – Grab the green part at the bottom of the flower (calyx) and with the nails on your other hand, gently (this is key) tear the flower at the base, but don’t tear right through the flower. You want to gingerly tear all along the edge so that you can pull the flower off while leaving the long skinny pistil in place.
- Once you’ve torn the flower at the base, pull apart from the top of the flower and the calyx. If you did it right, you’ll have the calyx in your hand, with the pistil still attached to it. That’s what you want.
- If you are lucky, you’ll even see a little drop of nectar attached to the base of the pistil.
- Drink up! Just put it in your mouth and gently suck and you should taste a drop of sweet.
It’s a delicate art that gets better with practice, so if you mess up, just try again – there’s plenty to go around and any flower you pick won’t become a future honeysuckle seed.